By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A double-digit comeback. A mind-blowing shooting performance. Nearly 10,000 fans, a historic venue and an up-and-down, back-and-forth marathon.
This all reigned true for the Tennessee Tech men's basketball team Tuesday evening, as the Golden Eagles (4-1) outgunned the Lobos of New Mexico (2-2) in The Pit, 104-96, before a deafening crowd of 9,700.
"It was a good win," head coach Steve Payne said. "Our guys played hard and everyone who went in the game really stepped up and played well. I'm really proud of all our guys for taking care of the ball relative to that kind of pressure. I kept telling them to keep being Tennessee Tech and do what we do. The buy-in with these guys is incredible and they know we can have a nice year. It's just exciting to come here and win this game."
Not many people watching the first five minutes of the contest would have predicted the outcome, as Tech missed its first 10 attempts from the field, trailing 10-1 with 14:39 on the clock before senior Aleksa Jugovic ended the drought with a triple.
"There was never any doubt we'd keep playing," Payne added. "We felt like we were getting good shots, we were just rushed a little bit. The atmosphere is unbelievable. They're pressure is unbelievable and they really hurry you up. But once we settled in, we were pretty good. "
Not thinking much of it at the time, the shot would foreshadow one of the greatest shooting performances in program history. Trailing by as many as 14 in the first half, Jugovic put the Golden Eagles on his back in the first half, draining all eight of his attempts from the field, including a perfect 6-for-6 showing from downtown and 2-for-2 effort at the charity stripe.
The guard finished with 24 first-half points and had Tech shooting 50 percent from the field despite the woeful start to the contest. New Mexico held a 55-51 advantage at the break, but the veteran Golden Eagle squad never wavered, despite being pressured by a full-court, trapping press by the Lobos the entire contest.
Jugovic passed the scoring touch and torch over to fellow senior Curtis Phillips Jr. in the second half, as the forward dropped 16 of his Tech career-high 23 points on 4-for-6 shooting and a 6-for-7 at the free throw line. Phillips Jr. also made six steals (and a career-high eight in the contest) over the final 20 minutes helping keep the Golden Eagles close throughout the remainder of the game.
While the contest featured a whopping 15 lead changes, 11 of them occurred in the second half; none bigger than the final one with 2:26 to play. Trailing by one point after the final media timeout and a pair of UNM free throws, graduate guard Kajon Mack took to the rack and drew a foul of his own.
Mack calmly drained both attempts at the charity stripe, providing Tech the lead for good. Both teams traded buckets and the Lobos called a timeout with 1:06 to play, fortunately allowing Tech to draw up a play that all-but iced the game away for good.
Ten seconds later, Mack found the sweet-shooting "Serbian Sugar" (Jugovic) in the right corner, who promptly splashed his seventh 3-pointer of the night for a four-point Tech lead a bit of team history as well. The triple tied his own school record for consecutive 3-pointers in a single game as well as making him the first player to finish a contest 7-for-7 or better from downtown.
Phillips Jr. put a ribbon on it on the next play as junior forward Courtney Alexander II secured his 10th rebound of the contest and flung the ball across the court to the wide open Golden Eagle. Phillips Jr. drew contact, finished the layup and sunk the following free throw for a three-point play and seven-point Tech lead.
The Golden Eagles knocked down their final four free throw attempts from that point to secure the eight-point win. The 104 points marked the most by a Tech team against a Division I opponent in regulation since defeating Southeast Missouri 103-76 back in January of 2009.
"We kept telling our guys 'If we don't have something in transition, they can't guard you in the half court. They don't want to guard you in the half court. Just go play basketball.'" Payne explained. "We didn't even run a play all night. When we weren't in transition, we just ran our base half-court offense and waited for good looks. For the most part, I thought we looked very good handling their pressure."
In the game, Tech outscored the Logos 42-20 in the paint and put up a mind-blowing 49 fast break points, the most by a Golden Eagle team in over 15 years. Despite the 0-for-10 start to the game, Tech shot 55.7 percent from the field, 54.5 percent from 3-point range and 75.0 percent from the line. The Golden Eagles went nuts in the second half, firing at 63.0 percent from the floor and 55.6 percent from deep.
Jugovic tallied a career-high 31 points on the night, finishing an astonishing 11-for-12 from the field with six assists and three boards. Phillips Jr. posted 23 points while hitting eight of his nine free throw attempts. His eight steals tied for the single-game program record and were the most since Van Usher during the 1990-91 season.
"It was target practice for him [Jugovic]," Payne said. "Our guys found him when he was open. I think he hit one tough shot, but for the most part, he just hit wide-open shots. I'll take my chances with any of our guys wide open. I feel any chance we have to get him a set three, we'll take it.
"Curt [Phillips Jr.] man. Tough kid. Tough kid. Tough kid. I don't know that he's the fastest. I don't know that he's the strongest. But I think he may be the toughest kid out there. And that's what he does."
Mack posted 14 points on the night, including a 6-for-6 mark at the line, while adding four assists. Graduate transfer Shaq Calhoun also notched 14 points, while playing big minutes down the stretch and coming up with two clutch steals.
Alexander narrowly missed out on his third straight double-double, settling for nine points and a game-high 10 rebounds. Held to just two points, senior forward Mason Ramsey made a massive impact on the glass and distributing the ball, hauling in eight rebounds and dishing out six assists.
Chris McNeal led the Lobo scoring effort with 29 points on a 7-for-11 showing from beyond the arc. Sam Logwood added 21 points for New Mexico.
The Golden Eagles will head to Niceville, Fla. for the Emerald Coast Classic Friday, Nov. 24 and Saturday Nov. 25. Tech will take on Omaha at 11:00 a.m. CT Friday morning with Saturday's opponent to be determined between Jackson State and Maryland Eastern Shore.
Photo courtesy of XL Photography